FAITH OF MY FATHERS

By John McCain with Mark Salter

Random House. 349 pp. $25

The temptation to pigeonhole (and dismiss) "Faith of My Fathers" as a campaign autobiography is strong. John McCain served in the House of Representatives from 1982 to 1986, and in 1987 was sworn in as senator from Arizona, a seat he still holds. He would now like to be president of the United States. Though that ambition may seem far-fetched in light of the huge advantage in the Republican race held, for the moment at least, by George W. Bush, McCain is doing what he can to advance his interests, and this book clearly is part of the process.

But McCain is an unconventional politician, as his frequent departures from Republican orthodoxy demonstrate, and he seems to be an uncommonly interesting man as well, so it cannot be surprising that his "campaign book," if that indeed is what this is, is itself unconventional and interesting. Where most authors of such books aim to persuade the reader of their manifold virtues and historic accomplishments, McCain concentrates on what he regards as his shortcomings and failures, offering for our consideration what is probably far closer to the real man than is to be found in most books of this stripe.

McCain has been in the news for much of his adult life, so his story is well known. It was previously told in book form in Robert Timberg's "The Nightingale's Song," relevant passages from which have now been extracted and republished as "John McCain: An American Odyssey" (Touchstone, paperback, $13); Timberg has added a certain amount of new material, and his slender volume is closer to a "campaign book" than McCain's.

On McCain's paternal side, both his grandfather and his father were admirals in the U.S. Navy, making his own "eventual enrollment at the [Naval] Academy . . . an immutable fact of life" and setting him on a course from which he did not deviate for more than two decades. He volunteered to serve in Vietnam as a fighter pilot, was shot down over Hanoi in 1967, and was a prisoner of war until 1973; for two of those years he was held in solitary confinement, and he was frequently subjected to interrogation and brutality. He left the Navy in 1981, having reached the rank of captain, and soon entered politics.

McCain tells this story in "Faith of My Fathers," but as the book's title suggests, there is much more here than that. The first third of the book is devoted to the stories of his father and grandfather, men who bequeathed to him an "irreverent, eccentric individualism," as well as--"of more lasting duration, and of far greater consequence"--a long family military tradition, dating back to the Revolution, making him "the latest in a long line . . . who had worn the country's uniform." Like his forebears, McCain has worn that uniform with pride, and comported himself with honor and distinction, but he has done so in his own fashion, frequently putting himself at odds with authority.

His account of his four years at the Naval Academy, a place he both hated and loved, is notable for its unsparing candor and self-criticism. Arriving there in 1954, he soon found himself "in conflict with the Academy's authorities and traditions," the beginning of a "four-year course of insubordination and rebellion." Like the preacher's son who feels compelled to rebel against his father's church, this career officer's son had to go through a long and at times painful mutiny against his father's service. He raised hell, thumbed his nose at spit-and-polish superiors, piled up demerits and graduated in 1958 only a few steps above the bottom of the class. Yet, as he writes:

"If I had ignored the less important conventions of the Academy, I was careful not to defame its more compelling traditions: the veneration of courage and resilience; the honor code that simply assumed your fidelity to its principles; the homage paid to men who had sacrificed greatly for their country; the expectation that you, too, would prove worthy of your country's trust. . . . The most important lesson I learned there was that to sustain my self-respect for a lifetime it would be necessary for me to have the honor of serving something greater than my self-interest."

It took a while, but the rebel matured into a competent seaman and a skilled aviator; "like my grandfather and father, I loved life at sea, and I loved flying off carriers." At training in Florida and Mississippi he continued his wild living--his accounts of it are more affectionate than self-critical, to which the only proper response can be: Good for you--but he learned what he needed to know, part of which was that he had "begun to aspire to command" not out of "any particular notion of greatness" but "to keep faith with my family creed." So he requested, and eventually was granted, a posting to Vietnam.

He got there in 1967, flew a number of missions, then was shot down. His account of his imprisonment takes up nearly half the book, and much of it is hard reading; it is not a pretty story. McCain feels he was given "special treatment" because in 1968 his father assumed command of the Pacific naval theater and held it for nearly four years; the North Vietnamese plainly hoped to use the four-star admiral's son for propaganda purposes. But "special treatment" was no day at the beach; among other things, it included no medical treatment for the serious wounds he had incurred when his plane was shot down or for others he received at the hands of his captors.

Under extreme duress McCain signed a confession of sorts, but the guilt and remorse that still haunt him seem all out of proportion to the document itself, which his fellow servicemen and countrymen immediately recognized for what it was. The truth is that his conduct in prison camp was exemplary and courageous and requires absolutely no apology. But it is wholly within character that to this principled man the one tiny stain on his escutcheon should appear so much larger than it actually is.

Whether this remarkable personal history qualifies McCain for the presidency is open to argument. He has, by his own ready admission, a short fuse and a hostility--softened over the years but hardly washed away--to convention and politesse. In addition, we are no longer as quick as we once were to elevate our military heroes to the White House, which probably is explained in part by changed attitudes toward the military and in part by the relative paucity of such men these days, none of which is necessarily to the good. But if he does not go a single step higher, McCain has lived, as he knows, a "blessed" life, and he has served his country as well as anyone could.

Jonathan Yardley, whose e-mail address is yardley@twp.com.

CAPTION: Sen. John McCain, telling his story.